The Guardian Building – Detroit, Michigan
By Brian Ochmanski / Photos by Dale Carlson
First among the giants of Detroit’s skyline is a bank, cathedral, and office building. A monumental skyscraper dedicated to the greater glory of the community. It has become the venerable old queen of the city’s architecture and a symbol of the heady prosperity of the 1920s. When it opened in 1929 it was christened the “Cathedral of Finance”. Today it is known as the Guardian Building.
The story begins with the founding of the Union Trust Company in 1891. By the mid-1920s, Union Trust had grown from a tiny concern limited to trusts to a full scale banking enterprise. Riding the real estate boom that gripped the city, president Frank Blair and the Board believed they needed a new headquarters to match the firms growing importance. They needed office space to accommodate their expanding departments. Moreover, they wanted to make a bold statement about Union Trust and the future of the city. These money men imagined Detroit rivaling Chicago to become the new financial capital of the Midwest. They needed something epic.
Union Trust’s new home would be designed and built according to the principles of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Begun as a reaction to industrialization in the nineteenth century, it emphasized craftsmanship and the intrinsic quality of materials to create beautiful spaces. Its adherents extolled the Gothic cathedrals as exemplars. The medievalist Rowland imbibed these lessons, giving us, quite literally, a textbook example.
The idea of adapting the form of a cathedral to skyscrapers was not new. Rowland first attempted it in his cruciform shaped Buhl Building just across Griswold Street. With the Guardian he would take this pun to a whole new level. Inside and out, the abstracted elements of sacred architecture are present. The cathedral style would serve to sanctify the very act of banking; a temple where moneychangers are welcome.
From the opulent main lobby to the penthouse at the top of the north tower, recurrence of materials is a central theme. The decorative metal of choice resembles platinum, a nickel alloy called “Monel”. Railings, furniture, doorknobs, vault gates, teller windows, ink wells, mail boxes, elevator doors, light fixtures, trash bins, et cetera, were all fabricated by the Gorham Manufacturing Company of New York City. From the most lavish executive office to the most spartan rental space, expertly crafted walnut and teak woodwork by Moline Furniture Works of Illinois is a prominent feature. Tile work is everywhere. One fine example is the White Pine mosaic behind the security desk in the main lobby. Fabricated by Ravenna Mosaic Company of St. Louis, it welcomes the customer with the company’s emblazoned credo.
The most distinguishing thread in the design scheme is the use of ebullient colors. Above the main lobby, set on the neutral Mankato stones, is a massive barrel vault ceiling, with a rich array of colors set in diamond patterns by Rookwood Tile Company of Cinncinati. Not to be outdone, Pewabic Pottery of Detroit furnished the bright tiles set into the recessed windows and entrances that greet visitors. Other examples of polychromatic splendor include the tympanums of the vault and lower banking rooms by Flint Faience & Tile Company of Flint, Michigan; the safety deposit boxes and elevator doors inlaid with black, red, and blue Favrile glass by Tiffany & Company of New York City; and of course, the signature orange Guardian brick of the facade.
The “symphony of color” continues with the terra-cotta that adorns the exterior. 80 years later, The Atlantic Terra Cotta Company’s claims of the colorfastness of their product have been confirmed. Above the buff Mankato limestone is a vibrant band of color surrounding the 6th floor. It denotes the location of the head offices of Union Trust, where the high priests of finance would promulgate their decrees. Here interlocking hexagons composed of vermilion, cream, green, and buff combine with Pewabic tile to create one of the building’s most striking features.
Superlative craftsmanship abounds. Flanking the main entrance, sculptor Corrado Parducci chiseled two stately figurines representing Safety and Security. These sisters reappear in the elevator niches, this time in finely rendered stained glass by George Greene. The far end of the banking sanctuary climaxes with Ezra Winter’s captivating mural. It depicts Michigan, the sources of its wealth, and a giant Goddess watching over her industry. But most dramatic of all, the massive Monel Gate that divides the lobby and main banking room, designed by Rowland and executed by the Gorham Company.
If color is the most distinguishing theme, then the ‘notched arch’ is the most unifying. This pattern can be seen everywhere, inside and out, from the four massive corbel arches that intersect the main lobby to the cream colored terra-cotta trim of the highest brickwork; nowhere more intricately than in Thomas DiLorenzo’s meticulous stencilling which adorns the canvassed, sound-dampening vault of the upper banking room.
Rising to a height of 632 feet, the building dominates the entire east side of Griswold Street between Congress and Larned. This block long street frontage gives it the appearance of being more massive than it actually is. In fact, it is a very narrow rectangle, 270 feet by 80; so narrow that Rowland felt he needed to add projecting window bays to increase the impression of stability. These vestigial buttresses are yet another nod to the cathedral style.
Adding to the monumentality of the structure is the 6-story Mankato limestone base. The impression given is that of a skyscraper pushing out of the earth, or of being carved from an existing rock formation. Windows and entryways are recessed. The bands of marble, granite, and terra-cotta resemble geologic strata. Coupled with the exotic design themes, this creates an air of antiquity; a mysterious monument that predates the city. It also serves as a plinth, accentuating the sculptural qualities of the brick work above.
No other skyscraper in the city exhibits the sculptural quality of the Guardian. Like the various guilds that crafted the great cathedrals, it is a paean to the craft of masonry. The lines call to mind Gothic spires. The orange blocks that make up the skin never rest. Its parapets, projections, bays, voids, and setbacks imbue the entire facade with a graceful sensation of movement.
Setbacks were actually a major feature of skyscrapers at the time, often the result of zoning ordinances designed to avoid overshadowing of streets. As art historian Robert Hughes notes: “This encouraged a more sculptural approach to mass and, by leading the street-level eye up the diminishing facades, gave importance to the top of the building, its crown or finial, on which architects lavished much fantasy and ingenuity.” The crown of the Guardian Building, a polygonal spire atop the north tower, is another coup of inventiveness, a Celtic weave of black and gold terra-cotta.
To cap off all this epic splendor, a “Sky Fountain”. The “Auto Electric Scintillator” was devised by William D’Arcy Ryan of the General Electric Company in Schenectady, New York. Each of the points on the polygonal crown contained oscillating beams of amber, magenta, or green light, like Valkyries connecting the Guardian to the heavens. Sadly, this coup de theatre disappeared with the tenancy of the U.S. Army during WWII. Another long gone feature is the observation deck that was on the roof between the towers. It provided breathtaking views of the straits from Lake Erie to St. Clair. Somewhere along the line it became just a roof. The green tile covered deck was removed and the space tarred over to accommodate the needs of modernity.
It was just eight months after the Guardian’s opening, however, when the first and most dramatic change to the building’s original intent took place. Union Trust merged and became the Union Guardian Trust, thus rendering countless engraved “UT” emblems seen on doorknobs, elevator doors, vault gates, and stationary obsolete. Worse, the whole concern went bust in 1933, and with it the lofty visions of the city’s banking elite. The Union Trust Building was purchased by the remaining tenants and renamed. Despite this failure, the Guardian still endures as a majestic symbol of Detroit at its zenith. ~I♥DM
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
(Editor’s Note: This post represents I Love Detroit Michigan‘s very first publication of writing by our newest team member, native Detroiter Brian Ochmanski. Brian is a obviously a visionary and a poet, but he’s also a strong believer in the power of leisure. Somehow he found a way to share his genius with us while staying true to his relaxational ideals. We look forward to spending many future hours begging Mr. Ochmanski to provide more brilliant content for your reading pleasure.)